It seems that one of the biggest concerns facing many women training for an obstacle race is that of a lack of upper body strength. We fear that our perceived inadequacy may hinder our overall performance come race day, and our confidence is shaken as we dread that we may not be able to complete many of the obstacles we will encounter.
While our male counterparts seem to effortlessly tackle monkey bars, 8 foot walls, and rope climbs, many women feel as though we were given the short end of the stick with regards to upper body strength. We struggle through these obstacles, and some of us just never quite find a way to conquer them, grimacing with defeat as we complete a penalty or end up bypassing the cursed obstruction. Granted, our physical makeup is quite different, and each sex has strengths and weaknesses the other does not, but just because we may not be blessed with a propensity for upper body aptitude does not mean that we cannot achieve it. I truly feel that a large part of the issue is due to the face that, from a young age, most girls are made to feel as though we aren’t supposed to focus on building strength in our upper-bodies. Almost as though it’s unladylike to be strong. We’re convinced that pull-ups are impossible, push-ups should be completed with knees resting on the ground, and don’t even think about lifting weights, because you’ll bulk up and look much too manly.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up in the realm of step aerobics, jazzercise, and Jane Fonda workouts. Women bounced happily around in leotards and leg warmers, and seemed more interested in keeping a “feminine” shape than truly being strong and fit. The misconception seemed to be that if a women completed any manner of strength training, she would become “butch” and much too masculine.
I think that our generation is still battling this mistaken belief, and I regularly hear women lament over their inability to complete upper-body focused obstacles. I also used to feel this way, and was content with the belief that I could not attain certain physical strengths simply because I’m a woman. I was convinced that pull-ups were a workout only men were able to complete, so I didn’t even bother trying to find a workout that would hone this skill. At obstacle races, walls of any size required a boost from anyone around willing to lend a shoulder or knee, and monkey bars and rope climbs were just plain scary. I had the mentality of “I can’t do this”, when instead I should have been thinking, “I can’t do this yet”. I’d love to see women change their expectation of their limitations, and realize that there are so many things that they can do, even if they cannot do it just yet.
In my case I was able to ever so slowly change not only my own perception of how strong I was capable of being, but I was also able to learn to identify myself with being feminine, fit, and tenacious. As I have become a more experienced obstacle racer, I also learned how to properly train my body for the tasks I will be asked to complete at each race. Monkey bars have become much more manageable to traverse, I have learned proper techniques to climb ropes with ease, and each wall I am now able to climb unassisted gives me a jolt of excited adrenaline. I can do the things that I was made to believe that I couldn’t. I can complete tasks that I believed were too difficult. And that is a truly amazing feeling, as it provides me with the confidence to know that I can continue to train, improve, and excel at future races.
The reason I’m sharing this is because I know that many of you reading this may share the same lament. You may doubt that you can ever achieve the upper body prowess to conquer certain obstacles, and this lack of faith in your abilities may be hindering you from accomplishing incredible personal results. But I’m here to tell you that with hard work and dedication, you too can achieve results that will astound you. You may just surprise yourself!
Now I know I can tell you that you can build your upper body strength till I’m blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you commit to working on building that strength. And before you think that you’ll bulk up, don’t worry! It actually takes a lot for a woman to develop large muscle mass (you won’t look like a body builder unless you purposely strive for that particular look. And if you are a body builder, you go girl! Rock it!), so any upper body strength training you do will simply aid you in building lean, beautiful muscles in your arms, shoulders and back.
Ready to get started? I recommend incorporating push-ups, planks, and dips regularly into your workouts as a great way to begin building your strength. I also try to work in a fair amount of heavy lifting as well. As a mother, I’m blessed with a 50 pound child to lift, carry, and wrestle with, and I’m convinced he’s a huge factor in my increased power and grip strength. Don’t have a child to incorporate into your training? No worries! Sand bags are a great alternative, and are easily found at any local hardware store. Hand weights are also fantastic, and are awesome for an all-around workout if combined with squats and lunges. If you have access to a gym, one or two sessions of weight training a week will make a huge difference as well, but a gym membership isn’t required to gain results.
Over time, you’ll begin seeing improvements in your ability to lift heavy items (if you’ve ever completed a Spartan Race and encountered the dreaded bucket carry, you’ll greatly appreciate a stronger upper body at this obstacle!), and maneuver obstacles like a champ. So don’t give in to the myth that women are unable to do certain things due to a lack of ability. We can do it, and we can do it well! With time, dedication, and focus, you too can conquer the course!
~Holly Joy Berkey